Q&A with Corey Roberts on Language Revitalization: "It's in Those Things Where My Heart Is"

Feb. 1, 2024
Corey Roberts in a blue shirt, smiling

In recognition of Black History Month, we spoke with polyglot Corey Roberts, a graduate student working toward his Ph.D. in linguistics with a minor in American Indian Studies. Originally from the East Coast, he was raised in a multiethnic family comprised of African, Indigenous, and European heritage. Corey identifies with the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and is deeply involved personally and academically in the revitalization of their language, Tutelo. Corey holds several degrees, including a second master’s degree in Native American Languages and Linguistics from UArizona, but didn’t begin his academic journey with linguistics in mind. Recently, he talked about how he realized UArizona was where he wanted to be, acknowledging those who helped him along the way, and how he hopes to serve his tribe after graduate school. 


Please talk about your family and community growing up.

I was born and raised outside of Philadelphia. I consider my ancestral ties to be in Southern Virginia, but my tribe is in North Carolina between the Research Triangle and Greensboro, and I consider that home. There are seven tribal entities, some more officially recognized than others, and of those tribes, the one I most closely claim and am tied to is the Occaneechi and they are in Burlington, North Carolina. My father's father was of Tuscarora, African American, and European ancestry, and my father's mother was of Occaneechi, African American, and European ancestry. 

My father's family was very closely knit but they all lived in Virginia. I grew up going down there once a year and the stark differences between northeastern culture and southern culture were very apparent. My mother's family was in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and while there was no animosity between my mother and her brothers, the family was a bit more insular, and each uncle kind of kept to themselves. Also, I did not grow up in a very functional household — there was addiction and abuse, and those were secrets meant to be kept in the nuclear family. So, when we did spend time with my mother's family, we just had an unspoken code of silence. My sister and I are very close from our upbringing. She and I developed a strong closeness as it was just the two of us siblings. We knew what things we were not to speak of, and we loved our mother's family, but we also enjoyed more openness in some ways with the larger family constellation of my father's side because there was that southern warmth. We get along with both sides great, but it's just two different types of cultures entirely.

How did you end up at the University of Arizona? 

I initially went to college on a scholarship with the intent of being an agricultural engineering major, but that didn’t last. It took a semester of chemistry, calculus, and physics to realize I didn’t want to do that. The only thing that kept me from losing the scholarship was a Russian class I took by accident. I was interested in taking a Russian literature class but because I was a freshman, I was kind of low on the ladder when it came to registering. I couldn't get the literature class but was told there was a Russian language at eight o'clock in the morning. Little did I know that I would end up studying a bunch of languages. Add to those performing arts classes as well, because growing up in a suburban environment, we went to playhouses. So, I thought maybe I'd take a dance or theater class at some point. And I did and I liked it and I just kept doing it. So, I studied five languages, and I always included some kind of performing art. I studied Russian in Russia. I studied capoeira, which is a martial art and dance form from Brazil, in Brazil, while taking Portuguese classes. And then I went and studied in Africa because I wanted to study in Africa and in a place where English was not the colonial language. So, I studied in a place where the colonial language was French, at the University of Saint-Louis in Senegal, while doing research at the Daniel Sorano National Theatre of Dakar. 

Eventually, I made my way to graduate school and that was for theater pedagogy. Later, I learned that I had Native relatives, and I figured with my language background, maybe language could be a way to connect with them. Then I learned that the state of my ancestral language was all but decimated. And I decided to throw any energy I could into it. I looked to see if there were any master's level Native American language programs. At the time, as far as I knew, there was only one, and that was here in Arizona. I happened to have a friend who retired from working here. So, I came and stayed with her and her husband, met the head of that master's program, got an apartment, and moved here a few months later.

How has UArizona stood out for you and your study of language revitalization?

I love the linguistics department and I love it here in Tucson. I'm a very pragmatic person. I quickly learned there was a lot more information that I needed based on the particular status of my language than could be obtained with a master’s; I was going to need more program time. I ended up staying here for the Ph.D. with a minor in American Indian studies, which was perfect because my heart in many ways was also in American Indian studies. This was a perfect place for me because of the linguistic rigor. We have the theoretical rigor in our department. We also have extensive work being done with Native languages and language revitalization, which is a different set of applied linguistics skills entirely. And then we had the first department of American Indian Studies in the country. So, I have been surrounded by some amazing scholars in both fields.

How do you like to express yourself? Where do you feel the most connected?

I'm a bit of a beast on the tennis court. I get all of it out and of course, people invariably ask what I do when we’re between games. So, they get a lecture on languages, and everyone cracks up because I am very vocal on the court, and I curse in a lot of different languages. So that is one of my safe places. I like gaming as well—not video games but tabletop gaming. And I am a kid of the performing arts. A few years ago, I did an Othello kind of monologue and dialogue, and I translated part of it into my language.

Who has had the greatest impact on your life?

There are several people…there's no greatest person. But Professor Emerita Diana Arcangeli, who I work with very closely and who retired last year, is one of them. She was a tough, tough, tough, tough professor, but I like it when the professors are tough. During her phonology class in the first semester of my Ph.D., there was one week when I and one of my colleagues spent 80 hours working on a project that she'd given us. Anyway, she along with a handful of other graduate students in linguistics and myself are co-authoring a book about the sounds of languages. It's about phonology but meant for Native American populations — for Indigenous people in the Americas. It's called Indigenous Languages of the Americas and their Structures. She and I may even be working on a grammar of my language. She knows some of my elders and comes to the monthly language class that I teach to people from seven different tribal communities. That has been a very inspirational relationship for me.

Also, the elders in my community, some of whom I've only known for a couple of years—they're an inspiration. One of my [online class] best students is an elder and a leader in my community. Her name is Vicky Jeffries. She is one of several people who say, “I need more homework!” She'll call me up and she'll grill me. To see these people — elders of the community — accessing the language for the first time, is an absolute inspiration to me.

What would you like most to achieve through your academics and work?

I want to stay in academia and find a teaching role that allows me to work on language revitalization. In my heart of hearts, I would like to work with all the tribes and do so both as a community member and an academic. I’ve also gotten involved in consulting with tribes in conservation work, which is not my background, but they brought me in kind of as a facilitator because I facilitate a lot in the classes that I teach. It turns out I just want to connect somehow to the culture of my ancestry. Many people of this language ancestry are writers, poets, and fiction writers. But some people want to write in the language, and I want them to be able to do that. I would like to dub cartoons into the language. 

Language is a vehicle and one that requires a lot of maintenance and a lot of work. I'm doing a lot of academic work to try to bring it back and it’s going to take a lot. Once we get to the point where we can operationalize this language, we get to do a lot of fun things, and it's in those things where my heart is.